1857: Rebellion, Imperialism, and How History is Written by the Victors

Clay Hallee
7 min readApr 13, 2021

The 1857 rebellion of sepoys is perhaps the defining event of the colonial period in the Indian subcontinent. The expression of Indian discontent and resulting change in British administration after the rebellion have led to it widely being seen as a turning point. Despite a relative lack of an idea of a unified India or agreed-upon common goal, some have even seen the 1857 rebellion as the first event in the eventual struggle for India’s independence. As a result of the explosive character of the revolt, characterizations of it have been wide-ranging and often contentious. Certainly, as the colonial era has ended and new methods of telling history have gained prominence, views of the rebellion, its causes, and its suppression have changed. Still, there are legacies of contemporary British positions on the rebellion, such as the wide mainstream referral to it as a “mutiny”. Indian and other sources are wide-ranging in their characterizations of the rebellion, with most acknowledging the British culpability in creating the conditions for revolt and the validity of Indian discontent. Overall, historical sources are starkly different based on their author and context, with older British forces having set the dominant narrative, and Indian contemporary sources refuting large parts of it. Recent scholarship has affirmed the justifications for the rebellion, but often fall into terminologies and ideas set by the British while neglecting some larger issues that mattered to Indians.

The rebellion of 1857 stunned Europeans with its swift and violent outbreak, but it did not come from nowhere or just a single spark. Leading up to 1857, as Indians suffered an economic downturn and British exploitation, there were numerous previous expressions of discontent. These included the activity of the “thugs” and pindaris as well as many instances of rural and urban violence. While not all of these were organized campaigns specifically against the British, they were not the markers of a placated society. Bates asserts this by saying “the so-called Pax Britannica in India was thus very much a myth… the events of 1857 [were] ‘unique only in their scale.’”[1]

Despite this turbulence, there were and still are plenty that believed that the Indians who revolted had no cause to revolt and were manipulated by malicious actors and outside forces. The victors tend to write the history that becomes the dominant narrative, and British hands are all over the narrative of a malignant, carefully planned conspiracy that has held a lot of sway in accounts of 1857. Kim Wagner explains that this is a product of British fears, attitudes, and misconceptions regarding the Indian people’s and leaders’ behaviors. The conspiracy narrative was also a popular one used to describe disturbances to the status quo in Western Enlightenment traditions of history. The idea of a few Indian leaders pulling strings and manipulating other Indians for their own gain had the effect of both protecting the British from accountability for their misrule and painting the Indians who revolted as naturally dumb, violent, capricious, and in need of civilization.[2] While there is certainly evidence of some aspects of the revolt being planned ahead of time, a grand conspiracy was not the primary driver behind it, and more recent and Indian-based histories focus on the legitimate causes of the rebellion. Still, the idea of a conspiracy is still a main principle of many of the most popular writings on 1857 despite the general lack of evidence surrounding it. In Wagner’s words, “The conspiracy of 1857 is thus cursorily mentioned but never fully explained; it is taken for granted yet not fully proven.”[3] This further solidifies it as a primary focus of history of the rebellion and serves to take pressure off of the British for their role in provoking it.

The legitimate causes for the rebellion differ based on source, but what cannot be disputed is that there was an abundance of them. These included both long-term causes and recent events and policies. It is evident that Indian frustration built up over quite a long time. Neutral outside sources like Bates espouse this structure of long-term causes, recent events, and a spark which set off widespread violence. Bates focuses on administrative reforms and practices. This includes the increased land tax and taking of most agricultural surplus and the implementation of British-style courts, which were not well-applied to affairs in India and confused and frustrated Indians.[4] An unequal and exploitative economy that narrowed opportunities for Indian producers is also a commonly cited grievance across almost all sources. Recent events and policies that had caused resentment were largely the work of Lord Dalhousie, the governor-general general from 1848 to 1856. Increased mechanization, the replacement in institutions of Persian with English, and the doctrine of lapse are the primary shorter-term creators of rebellious sentiment cited in other neutral outside sources.[5] Especially, the recent annexation of the state of Oudh through the doctrine of lapse is cited as a source of intense anger across nearly all sources. Indian sources on the causes of the rebellion are less abundant, but in terms of general causes they tend to lend credence to the previously mentioned sources, especially contemporary sources. Indian writer Sayyid Ahmad Khan gives his reasons for the outbreak of rebellion mostly in terms of the British and Indians misunderstanding each other, and the British not knowing how to govern India in a manner beneficial to the people.[6] While he had to watch his words due to colonial suppression, one can assume that he is attributing the rebellion primarily to British failures in the aforementioned areas.

One aspect of the rebellion that is underplayed frequently is the role of religion and native concerns over British incursions on Hinduism and Islam. Concerns over missionary activity are frequently cited in outside sources, but rarely looked at in detail. The presence of religion in Indian writings on the rebellion is especially important and striking. Obviously the issue of the cow and pork fat greased cartridges is frequently discussed, but this is mostly seen as a one-off spark as opposed to the culmination of a perceived attack on religion. The Azamgarh Proclamation, probably the most famous Indian writing of any kind regarding the rebellion, cites the British as an enemy of Hinduism and Islam and says that “at present a war is raging against the English on account of religion.”[7] The proclamations of Nana Sahib and Kazan Singh’s poem echo this and assert that the British were trying to Christianize India.[8][9] This seemed to be a popular belief and shows that concerns over missionary activity and Christianity were very acute and a strong rallying point for the rebels. This brings one to the issue of the greased cartridges. These are primarily cited as the immediate cause, or spark of the rebellion. To this extent, this is true, it is widely agreed (except by those espousing a grand conspiracy) that this was the event that set in motion the violence of the rebellion. Still, it must be seen in the prior context of fears over Christianization and religious domination. Religion was both a primary cause and the spark for the rebellion, making it strange that it is not accounted for more across sources on the rebellion.

Sources made during the rebellion were typically made by Indians and focused on the extreme violence and brutality of the war. These are hard to read due to the suffering depicted in them and are filled with harrowing accounts of massacres and sackings of cities. Most of these, and later accounts, agree on the fact that atrocities were perpetrated by both the rebels and the British over the course of the war, and that this was generally typical for the time period.

The aftermath of the rebellion is mostly seen through British eyes. This can be seen in even the traditional name for it, the “1857 sepoy mutiny”. The British certainly made some changes to ensure that another conflict like this would not break out again. Chief among these was putting India under direct British rule and restructuring the land lax and rural land ownership.[10] Like most other British actions in India, these were likely done for their own self-interest more than the good of the Indian people. However, the British still relied on rhetoric of liberty and civilization, so they sought to produce justification for their suppression of the rebellion. Queen Victoria’s proclamation outlining some of the changes coming to India emphasizes this. In one section, she writes ”We deeply lament the evils and misery which have been brought upon India by the acts of ambitious men, who have deceived their countrymen, by false reports, and led them into open rebellion.”[11] This mirrors the conspiracy narrative discussed earlier. It strips agency and legitimate cause from the Indians who rebelled and paints them as dumb and easily deceived by bad actors in society. By including ”in false reports”, Queen Victoria and the British imply that no British abuses had taken place at all. The British also assert their right to impose their convictions on their ”subjects”, the Indians, throughout the proclamation. The British proclamations and acts after the fact not only outline legal changes, but also attempt to shape the narrative surrounding the rebellion. The rebellion is talked of as a simple mutiny of soldiers set in motion by malicious plotters in an uncivilized land, not an expression of discontent with British rule or a desire for self-government.

The 1857 rebellion is still a defining event in Indian history but is not primarily seen on Indians’ own terms. As time has gone on, views of the rebellion have changed, but old British colonial justifications have still held some sway, especially when it comes to the conspiracy narrative. Indian contemporary sources paint a better picture of the reasons for the rebellion and the experience of living through the British colonial period. The presence of Indian perspectives has improved discussion and characterization of the rebellion and helped to show 1857 as an expression of Indian discontent instead of a bump in the road of imperialism.

[1] Crispin Bates, “Peasant Resistance, rebellion and the uprising of 1857,” in Subalterns and the Raj (London: Routledge, 2007), 56.

[2] Kim Wagner, “Introduction,” in The Great Fear of 1857: Rumours, Conspiracies and the Making of the Indian Uprising (Bern: Peter Lang, 2010).

[3] Wagner, “Introduction,” 21.

[4] Bates, “Uprising of 1857”, 61–62.

[5] Dennis Dalton et al., “Chapter 2,” in Sources of Indian Traditions: Modern India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, 3rd ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014).

[6] Dalton, “Chapter 2”, 116.

[7] Dalton, “Chapter 2,” 101.

[8] “Proclamations of Nana Sahib,” in Part Two: Immediate Events, 6–9.

[9] “‘Atha Jang Nama Dilli’ by Kazan Singh,” in Part Two: Immediate Events, 2–3.

[10] Crispin Bates, ”Zenith of Empire,” in Subalterns and the Raj (London: Routledge, 2007).

[11] ”Proclamation by the Queen in Council to the Princes, Chiefs, and People of India”



Clay Hallee

A place for my best work regarding history, international affairs, and more. All written since early 2019.